Every year it’s a thankless task.
There are so many deserving candidates for The Eagle-Tribune’s year end sports awards, how do you boil it down to the top handful of athletes, coaches, teams, games and stories?
It’s not easy and there are some great athletes, coaches, teams, games and stories that were nosed out.
But below are the best of the best from 2013.
Male Athlete of the Year
Haverhill’s Noah Vonleh set off a basketball recruiting frenzy
No disrespect to McDonald’s All-American Scott Hazelton from Central Catholic or Raider 7-footer Carson Desrosiers. Or the local trio of third-round draft picks Ethan Philpott of North Andover (Phillips hockey 1993) or Steve Heinze of North Andover (Lawrence Academy hockey 1988) or Jay Yennaco (1995 Pinkerton baseball).
Not even second-team USA Today All-American fullback Rob Konrad of North Andover and St. John’s Prep.
No area athlete has ever been as highly recruited as Noah Vonleh. The New Hampton (N.H.) Prep forward from Haverhill was ranked the No. 7 player nationally in the Class of 2013 by Scout.com, No. 8 by Rivals.com, and No. 13 by ESPN.
The Indiana University freshman, who spent his first two years at Haverhill High, has lived up to the hype. And then some.
He’s played like Noah Vonlottery and could be a one-and-done star headed off to the NBA in June. The recent NBADraft.net mock 2014 draft had him being selected ninth overall.
The multi-talented 6-10, 240-pounder with the size 17 shoe and freakishly big hands and wing span, is racking up double-doubles left and right.
He is averaging 12.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in 22.2 minutes a game. His rebounds per minute is third in the country.
Female Athlete of the Year
Knights’ Coughlin showed girls could compete and even dominate
North Andover senior 106-pound wrestler Danielle Coughlin made history and earned regional and national recognition when she won the Division 2 state title. She is the only female ever to win a Mass. wrestling state title.
With an inordinant amount of pressure on her to deliver for the team and make history, Coughlin was more than up to the challenge. She beat Winchester star Jordan Darby, 5-3.
“It’s truly amazing for her to do that, to win a state title in a boys sport,” said North Andover coach Carl Cincotta after the match. “It’s only happened a few times in the country and I think the others were small population states like Vermont and Alaska.”
Wise beyond her years, Coughlin was always careful not to let her teammates feel overshadowed by all the hoopla. That’s one of the reasons she was a co-captain.
“I knew that I had to win for the team to win the team title. That was my first priority,” said Coughlin, who went on to earn a sixth at All-States. “The team title was on my back and that was what I was thinking about. I always want to do my job for the team.
Coughlin, who was recognized in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd”, went on to earn a sixth at All-States.
Performance of the Year
Andover’s Cronin soared for record
Moira Cronin was one of just 31 American females (all ages) to high jump 6-feet last year. The former Andover High All-American accomplished the feat on May 10 of what was her sophomore year at Virginia.
Cronin was the first local trackster ever to clear 6-feet.
All it took was overcoming:
A fear of heights (how’s that for ironic?)
A new coach
A bad slump
The knowledge that she had been an infuriating 0 for 19 at that magical height dating back to her high school days.
Although Moira (it’s pronounced Maura) had dreamt about it for years, the metric sign threw her off. She didn’t even know it was six feet. Now she knows 1.83 meters is six feet. And it’s awesome.
She attributed the ignorance to “a blonde moment.”
In the future, she’ll know. And there could be more personal bests. Her coach estimated she cleared the bar by a whopping three inches.
Story of the Year
Scarlet Knights stood by their coach
It never passed the smell test. John Rafferty was being fired? And the disingenuous administration was lamely reciting a tired mantra.
“We can’t comment on personnel decisions,” said Superintendent Kevin Hutchinson.
What a way to treat the very successful North Andover football coach (81-49 record in 12 seasons), who took over a struggling program plagued by discipline problems and rebuilt it from the ground up.
Captains-elect Tom Stabile, Collin Couillard and Matt Iannone appeared before the School Committee and eloquently, passionately and maturely stated their case.
It proved to be a compelling case. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to hide behind mantras and avoid answering the tough questions on why he was being fired.
Stabile pointedly asked, “If he (Rafferty) doesn’t understand, then who does?”
The captains and “Team Raff”, as his legion of supporters became known, eventually won out and Rafferty got his job back.
Boys Game of the Year
It doesn’t get bigger than Everett
The most storied program in the state? That’s easy. It’s Everett High football.
In 22 years under legendary coach John DiBiaso, the Crimson Tide had won 19 straight league titles, made 14 Super Bowls, won 10 of them, and boasted a 219-23 record.
The national rankings and big-time scholarships had become commonplace.
This is what Central Catholic was taking on in the Division 1 North title game when the once-beaten Raiders traveled to Everett Veterans Memorial Stadium on Nov. 16 to take on the once-beaten Crimson Tide.
The three-time defending Super Bowl champion Crimson Tide.
It wasn’t going to be easy, it never is when you line up across from the Crimson and Gold.
Central star Cody Demers took a wicked shot early on and was on the sidelines. But not for long.
Everett took a 15-14 lead with 7:12 left on a Marquis Holman 1-yard run and James Hunt’s 2-point rush.
Many a would-be juggernaut had assumed the same fate.
Great game. You should be proud. Congratulations on your moral victory.
But the fourth-seeded Raiders showed the top-seeded hosts they had plenty left in the tank.
But a drive to the 5 ended on a fumble and another late fumble nearly ended it. But alert offensive lineman Dan MacDonald pounced on it.
Two plays later, Mike Milano hooked up with Demers, who outscrapped Wisconsin recruit Lubern Figaro for a gorgeous, game-winning 24-yard TD catch with 2:10 left.
Most “experts” picked Xaverian to win the Division 1 Super Bowl. But after beating Everett, the Raiders weren’t to be denied and hammered the state’s other super power 34-17.
Girls Game of the Year
Hillie lacrosse believed in miracles
All things considered, it wasn’t a bad loss.
After all, when Haverhill played Pentucket early in the season, the Hillies were humbled 21-8. This was looking like only a four-goal loss.
The Haverhill girls lacrosse team trailed by four with two minutes left. It was about time to file this one under moral victories.
But the moral of the story was don’t give up, don’t ever give up.
Haverhill fought back and tied it at 15-15. The Hillies ended up completing the amazing comeback but it would take a bit of a wait. Kristy Robertson’s ninth goal of the day, which came in the third overtime, gave the Brown and Gold the 17-16 win.
Robertson, who also assisted on three goals, had help. After a slow start, Alex Comeau heated up and finished with 13 saves. And Hayley Duquette netted four goals.
The nine goals may seem like a lot, but Robertson, a Southern New Hampshire University recruit, had a 12-goal game against Dracut.
Boys Team Coach of the Year
Coach Niceforo did all the little things
With Rob Niceforo, little things equal big things. By dotting all his I’s and crossing all his T’s, the Lawrence High wrestling coach has built a powerhouse. Last year the Blue and White won the might Merrimack Valley Conference title, the third MVC title (outright or shared) in the last four years.
Coaching at an inner city school like Lawrence High obviously presents ample challenges. Couple that with how uniquely grueling wrestling is, and you might think the Lancers would face annual numbers problems.
Not in the least. The last several years the 10th-year Lancer head coach has had 100 or more grapplers report to opening practice and has worked hard to make sure the majority last the season.
Niceforo has been an assistant for Tony Sarkis in football and wrestling and the Greater Lawrence Tech coach is a big admirer.
“He’s definitely someone who understands the make-up of the inner city,” said Sarkis. “He does a great job. You can tell by the success. It doesn’t come easy for an inner city school. You have to be on task every day. He puts all the safety nets in. He’s gotten kids to graduate, to go on to school and teach them to be good citizens.”
Niceforo, 40, a Greater Lawrence Tech math teacher, won MVC titles and the 2011 Division 1 dual-meet state title.
One of the most media savvy coaches in the area, Niceforo relishes getting positive publicity for his athletes.
Consequently, Lawrence wrestlers are among the most frequently highlighted in The Eagle-Tribune with feature stories, captains pictures, Unsung Heroes write-ups and Moynihan Scholar-Athlete winners.
Girls Team Coach of the Year
Clavette delivered for Timberlane
There was no denying Timberlane softball was in a major rut. The Owls were just 17-60 the previous four years.
Coach Jim Clavette and the Owls, though, delivered the goods last season.
The longtime mailman wasn’t predicting a monster season. In the preseason he allowed, “We should be above .500.”
Coming off a 6-13 season, that would be a nice achievement.
But the Owls did much more. They won their second Division 1 title in a decade. To do it they had to beat No. 1 Concord and its Katie Kennard, the N.H. Gatorade MVP.
Owls standout Christina Nye said Clavette, who was named N.H. Division 1 and Eagle-Tribune Softball Coach of the Year, was a key factor in the turnaround.
“He played a pretty important role,” said Nye, who clubbed a two-run double in the title game. “He always kept us focused and made sure we had our eye on the goal. Every chance he got he’d say, ‘This could be the season we win it all.’
“After the season got going and we started to realize we could do it, he was always very positive and said he believed in us.”
The Clavette family bleeds Timberlane sports. Jim’s wife, Jane, was a longtime Owls softball assistant and still is an assistant field hockey coach. Their daughter, Renee, was Eagle-Tribune softball MVP in 2004 and was an Eagle-Tribune All-Star field hockey goalie.
Boys Team of the Year
Resilient Salem kept dynasty going
Sometimes it’s just time.
The weight of a dynasty can be overwhelming. And few dynasties can match Salem boys volleyball. Heading into last spring, the Blue Devils had won the state title all eight years that it was offered as a varsity sport in the state. They had lost one match ... 148-1.
It looked like the 2013 Blue Devils would certainly be in the hunt, perhaps the favorite. But by no means were they a sure thing.
They headed into the final against Windham unbeaten.
Unbeaten but shorthanded.
State MVP Erin Denning was hurt during practice. But Salem uses the Patriots’ “next man up” philosophy.
Sophomore Matt LaVasseur was that next man up and did an admirable Denning imitation. Things looked bleak when Windham won Game 1 25-19 and led 21-20 in Game 2 and also led late in Game 3.
But Andrew Ruffen came up big with 29 assists and nine kills and Colton Burnham and Danny Nugent each added 10 kills. It added up to a tight 3-1 win and a ninth straight title.
Girls Team of the Year
Windham worked plenty of overtime to capture state field hockey title
To be a champion, it takes extra work.
For the Windham High field hockey team, that meant working overtime in the semifinals and final.
The Jaguars were left for dead in the semifinals. St. Thomas, a team which lost to Windham 5-0 and 3-0 in the regular season, had nothing to lose.
STA lead in the waning moments but junior forward Nikki Croteau rescued the Jags from a crushing upset loss by scoring with a mere eight seconds left in regulation.
Then sensational junior Courtney Sweeny won it in OT with her school record 27th goal of the year.
The final wouldn’t be any easier.
Again an upset-minded four-loss team was primed to take out the once-beaten top seed.
Justine Levesque scored the equalizer with 10 minutes left and Sweeny (who else) beat Merrimack Valley with a goal early in OT. Despite the 15-1-1 record, nothing came easily.
First, the Jags were without coach Amanda Ward early in the season after her first child was stillborn.
The coach and the team battled through that trying time and started playing championship-level field hockey.
Then came the near-misses late in the postseason.
But in the end, talent, tenacity and a bit of lady luck combined to make them champions.